In an age where fears of school violence are at an all-time high, some North Carolina lawmakers want to address the problem by taking steps such as requiring students to learn about civic responsibility and how to stop bleeding in trauma situations.
The state House School Safety Committee unanimously adopted a final report Thursday that includes recommendations such as more money for school safety grants and expanded civic education and first aid training for students. The committee avoided discussing controversial topics such as access to guns.
“Some of the things that we’ll be providing today may raise eyebrows,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and committee co-chairman. “But the effort here is a positive effort to move forward, and I think if nothing else it raises the awareness that we have to start talking about this.
“We have to start finding solutions, and we have to start applying those solutions.”
The House School Safety Committee was formed after the Feb. 14 school shooting massacre in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead. Since then, North Carolina experienced its own school shooting in October when a 16-year-old student was fatally shot at Butler High School in Matthews.
At Thursday’s committee meeting, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox detailed the changes made since the shooting, such as random screenings and bag checks of students and giving teachers panic devices.
There’s been a push in North Carolina and nationally to add more police in schools, but Wilcox said he’s not focusing on adding more armed officers. A recent study of North Carolina middle schools found no relationship between increased funding for school resource officers and reduction in cases of reported school crimes.
Wilcox said he wants to get more counselors, social workers and psychologists in schools to address the social and emotional health of students. Wilcox said addressing the mental health needs of students is the top priority “to have the kind of state that we need to have.”
“I would take a careful look at what you’re about to do as a legislature in terms of tax relief and before you provided that relief to the citizens of this state, I would make sure that you had fully funded the mental health needs of young people across this state,” Wilcox told lawmakers.
The Republican-led state legislature has made a series of tax cuts in recent years that Democrats, including Gov. Roy Cooper, have opposed because they say the money should have gone toward services such as public education. Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, challenged Wilcox, saying that studies have shown reducing taxation can increase revenue.
After hearing Wilcox and Matthews Police Chief Clark Pennington talk about the Butler High shooting, the committee adopted the final report that will be used to present legislation during next year’s session.
One of the recommendations would require schools to teach students in elementary, middle and high schools about civic responsibility. A draft bill says schools would be required to teach students about respect for school personnel, their responsibility for school safety and about service to others.
“None of us can legislate parenting,” Torbett said. “So this is an effort to promote the positive impact an individual has with themselves and with others and to learn that through just civic responsibility. No more, no less.”
Another recommendation would expand the existing requirement that high school students need to learn about first aid and CPR to graduate. The report recommends that all students, from elementary through high school, be taught how to use automated external defibrillators and how to stop “life-threatening bleeding” in “trauma situations.”
Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat, warned there would be resistance to requiring the training for elementary school students.
Other recommendations include:
▪ Further study to develop a statewide system for mental health screening of schoolchildren in North Carolina to identify who is at risk of harming themselves or others;
▪ Continue and expand the $30 million in school safety grants provided this year to $53 million in 2019;
▪ Reintroduce school safety legislation proposed by the committee that wasn’t adopted such as requiring school districts to establish threat assessment teams and peer-to-peer support programs;
▪ Form a House study committee on school safety in 2019 to continue study ways to improve school safety.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, told Torbett she hopes any new committee would study the issue of access to guns. Harrison cited the concerns Wilcox had made in his presentation about the need to keep guns out of schools.
“I had a young person tell me it was easier for him to get a gun than to get to the library,” Wilcox told lawmakers. “If that’s true in North Carolina, we have a lot of work to do.”
Torbett said that the committee had decided to focus its work on mental health, which he called a “core issue.” During this year’s legislative session, various gun laws proposed by Democratic legislators didn’t gain traction with the GOP majority.
Rep. John Faircloth, a Guilford County Republican and committee vice chairman, said that the gun safety issue is something that can be addressed later. But he said that shouldn’t get in the way of what the committee is now recommending.
“There will be a lot of support for gun safety,” Faircloth said. “But there will be a lot of misinterpretation of it too.”